Intel Core vs Intel Xeon. This conversation comes around once or twice a year. People who are looking for powerful workstation to game or perform intensive tasks tend to run into a dilemma. The question came up at the office with Intel’s latest push into the high-ed market. They just released a second-generation Intel Core i9 processor with huge performance statistics, further blending the line between end-user and server-class processors. In a computer world where both Core and Xeon processors are options when purchasing powerful workstations, “What processor should I be getting?”
Before we continue, I should clear up a term that can easily cause confusion. Intel branded their i3/i5/i7/i9 processor products with the name “Intel Core Processors.” However, the word “core” is also a technical computer term that refers to an independent unit that reads and executes instructions. Hence, the more cores a processor has, the more work it can do. To help reduce confusion, I’ll underline the word Core when referring to the Intel product line of consumer processors. If I don’t, I’m referring to the technical term.
A Quick Number Check
Let’s look at a 2017 Intel Xeon W (W-2155) that is available in Apple’s iMac Pro workstation:
- 3.0GHz (Boosts up to 4.5GHz)
- 10 cores
- 20 threads
- 23.75MB cache
- Retail Price: $1400
Here is the recently-unveiled Core i9-9900X processor to compare against the above Xeon:
- 5Ghz (up to 4.5GHz)
- 10 cores Units
- 20 threads
- 19MB cache
- Retail Price: $989
Why create this new i9 product line?
To answer this question, let’s learn more about Intel’s original plans for Xeon. Introduced in June of 1998, Intel unveiled Xeon processors for non-consumer workstations and servers. These processors have features that are not available in the Intel Core product line. Here is a quick overview list of Xeon’s strengths over the Core Processors:
- Higher core-count design (up to 28 cores vs 18 in Core processors)
- Higher memory capabilities (up to 512GBs of RAM memory vs 128GB in Core processors)
- Supports ECC (error-correcting memory), Core Processors do not
- Supports multi-processor environments (Core motherboards only support one processor)
- Built for longevity, Xeon processors are qualified to operate under constant heavier workloads, 24 hours a day. Consumer-focused Core processors definitely do not fall under this same category.
Nonetheless, there is a growing number of end-users today who need quantities of resources that were once only heard of in small to medium business servers. They fill the gap between multitasking power users and business/resource servers. This middle gap is now being referred to as High-End DeskTop users (HEDT). These are the big guys we’re bringing in-house to do the work we used to outsource. Using professional-class graphics cards for 3D CAD drawings, 6 to 8 processor cores to crunch 4K video frames, and 64GBs of RAM for navigating massive Lightroom catalogs.
With great power "needs" comes a greater…reason to use Xeon?
We've confirmed and understood that there is a need for this level of power. Why, then, reinvent the wheel with an i9 processor when Xeon processors already exist? Believe it or not, Intel Core processors are designed with unique features not available on Xeon processors. Here is a quick overview of Core Processors:
- Overclocking – many versions of Core processors can be pushed beyond the frequency they are qualified for. With the right voltage, BIOS settings, and cooling, you get additional power out of your processor for free.
- Higher base GHz – the Core processors are often built with higher base frequencies than Xeon processors. Our Xeon vs i9 comparison above is a great example.
- Graphics – Core processors all come with onboard graphics. While they don’t compare to the performance of a discrete video card, it does give you the option of building a powerful number-crunching machine without one. Xeon processors, by comparison, don’t come with any onboard graphics.
- Price – While the Xeon has an impressive list of exclusive features, many HEDT users don’t need or want those features. Without a more limited feature set, Core processors can built at relatively lower cost.
Looking at the list above, you can start to see why the i9 processors are needed. Last year, AMD produced a processor for the HEDT market at a market-disrupting price. This caused Intel to adapt their strategies and produce a processor that could compete in both cost and performance. The i9 processor product line can go up to 18 cores and 128GBs of memory, easily supplying the needs of most HEDT users. If you still need more power or memory, the latest Xeon processors are waiting with arms open wide.